Are frequent flier miles worth it? While accruing points with airlines and hotels may be the last thing on an entrepreneur’s mind, startups can reduce the cost of business travel with a little planning. As you earn miles, get status, and choose from a wallet full of credit cards, use the tips below to find the best deals.
1. Aggregator sites > Frequent flier status
Airlines usually base frequent flier status on the number of miles or flight segments you’ve taken. Over time, the awards accrue to earn free upgrades or even entire flights. This is a great benefit, but make sure you aren’t overpaying to fly on a specific airline by comparing fares on aggregator sites. Kayak and its many competitors display flights (and hotels and rental cars, if you need one) across a variety of airlines and airports. Other sites like Hipmunk lets you search a range of dates to find the least expensive fare.
Reportedly, airlines use browser cookies to increase prices when you repeatedly search for tickets, so you may want to delete the browser’s cookies or open an incognito browser.
2. Timing is everything.
Know when to look for deals, because good timing pays off. Airlines traditionally publish their best prices on Tuesday. If your travel plans are flexible, some carriers like United send weekly deals to travel the next weekend, but these prices tend to be similar to what you would pay booking several weeks in advance. Yapta helps you track changing ticket prices and get a refund if ticket prices fall. If you can’t make plans immediately, sites like Airfarewatchdog provide deal alerts via email and Twitter.
3. Watch for hidden fees.
Most airlines are known for hefty charges, but some carriers are especially punitive. Spirit offers low fares, but charges extra to bring normal carry-on luggage–fees that reach $100 at the gate. While Spirit’s actual ticket may be cheaper, the total cost of flying on a different carrier like Southwest, where two checked bags “fly free” might be less overall.
4. Pay attention to refund policies and fees to change tickets.
If you book directly with United, you can easily cancel your reservation within 24 hours. For greater flexibility, Southwest offers refundable “anytime” tickets more cheaply than many carriers, with a smaller delta over normal ticket prices. You can even request a refund for these tickets after the flight has departed, which provides greater flexibility.
5. Factor in incidental costs.
Make sure you account for all trip costs—especially for transportation. For instance, if you are flying to New York City, LaGuardia airport has fewer public transportation options. A cab ride to Manhattan costs over $40, but if you fly into JFK International Airport, you can take the AirTrain and subway for $7.25 total.
6. Utilize transit apps.
Whether finding subway stops in New York or locating affordable parking with SpotHero, make sure you have back up for unfamiliar destinations–if you’re stuck in the New York City subway, you won’t be able to access cellular networks underground.
7. Look for cheap lodging once you land.
In major urban areas from Atlanta to Vancouver, the popular HotelTonight app lets you find last minute reservations. The deals feature boutique hotels at steep discounts–the only caveat is that you can only see the available rooms after noon that day. Airbnb features interesting local accommodations that may have more space than a standard double hotel room.
8. Take advantage of hotel loyalty benefits.
If you’re a frequent traveler, developing hotel loyalty pays off. Major brands like Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, and Starwood have significant loyalty programs. These programs have two main elements: reward points and status. Points operate like normal loyalty programs and can be redeemed for future stays or converted into airline miles. For frequent travelers, “status” relates to how frequently you have stayed at a particular brand’s hotels. Elite status provides benefits like later check-out times, free internet, room upgrades, extra points per dollar, and lounge access.
For most programs, you have to stay at a hotel property for a fairly high number of nights or stays to earn status. However, “loyalty challenges” can lower the requirements. Marriot Rewards offers a “Taste of Platinum” challenge where travelers can earn platinum status after nine stays instead of the usual 75 nights. (Lower threshold Gold and Silver challenges are also offered). Additionally, some chains “match status” if you have earned elite membership with one of their competitors. Booking rooms for your traveling companions–whether you’re on vacation or making arrangements for the rest of your team–earns more credits towards status.
The benefits of status lower your travel costs. For instance, the sticker price on a Starwood property (brands include: Sheraton, Westin, and W) might be slightly more expensive than nearby hotels, but amenities like free Wi-Fi makes the Starwood reservation cheaper overall. Depending on your travel plans, analyze whether you are better off paying for a hotel room in points, or using a combination of cash and points which often translates to a greater “cents per point” value.
9. Keep an eye out for dining deals and online rewards.
While you’re on the road, look for dining deals and online rewards. Groupon’s Savored offers lower prices at popular restaurants in major cities. Similarly, booking an OpenTable reservation worth 1,000 points earns $10 in rewards. However, a word of caution: as you hunt for great deals, check Yelp to avoid unpleasant surprises when you arrive.
10. Pay with the right credit card.
While using specific cards for flights, hotels or dining maximizes cash back or bonus points, you should also pay attention to included benefits like rental car insurance. An additional benefit of branded airline or hotel credit cards like the Hilton HHonors Visa is that they often help you reach elite status faster. As you compare credit cards, find the best signup promotion through a quick Google search.
Keep in mind that applying for new credit cards can lower your credit score, so chasing rewards may not be a good idea if you are also looking for a loan in the near future.
11. All points are not created equal.
Make sure you do your homework as you redeem rewards. For instance, my calculations showed that Citi’s Thank You points are worth more cents per point than Starwood points when you book a flight, but Starwood points are worth more if you’re converting points into Amazon.com gift cards.
12. Take all of the credit.
Last but not least, make sure you receive proper credit for all of your travel and accommodations. Put a reminder on your calendar to look over your rewards statements and contact customer service if your points don’t appear.
Just like a thousand-mile journey begins with a single step, a little planning goes a long way to manage the cost of business travel for your startup.